5 Popular Tube Amps For Playing Heavy Metal, Reviewed
Want a new guitar amp that’s suitable for heavy riffing, and high gain lead tones?
Or maybe you want an amp that can do a bit of everything, but has more gain than you’ll ever need?
If the answer is yes to either of those questions – you’re in the right place!
In this post, I’ll be reviewing 5 popular tube amps for playing heavy metal. I’ll share what I think about the amps, what they’re suitable for, and what other options are available.
And just to be clear – I wasn’t paid to write this, and none of these brands sent me the amps to review.
Let’s dive in:
1. EVH 5150 Mk 3 Head Amplifier
The 5150 is one of the most recorded metal amps in history. They’re now built and distributed by Fender which also makes them very accessible.
And this model comes with an impressive set of features.
My review of the EVH 5150 Mk 3 50-Watt Head Amplifier (pictured above):
The EVH 5150 Mk3 50-watt head is a 3 channel amplifier. This version features EL34 power tubes. It’s more compact than it’s 100-watt big brother, but not quite as compact as the lunch box style heads.
Just to give you an idea of size: this will just about fit on most 2×12” vertical speaker cabinets, maybe with a slight bit of overhang.
And as you might expect, the 5150 is capable of unleashing devastating amounts of gain.
Channel one and two share EQ controls. And gain/volume controls have knobs with 2 rotary controls. Channel switching can be controlled from the front of the amp, or via a 4 button footswitch (which doesn’t have a molded cable – just a regular TRS jack socket).
On the foot pedal, you’ve got a foot switch for each of the 3 channels with different coloured LED’s so you can tell which channel you’ve selected even if you’re on a dark stage. The 4th switch controls the FX loop.
On the back, you’ll find the extra cool stuff. This includes a headphones jack socket, MIDI in, effects loop, pre-amp out, resonance control. Impedance is selectable between 4, 8, and 16 ohms. And there are two speaker outputs.
What about tones? 5150’s aren’t known for their clean channels, and that set my expectations. But, my expectations were broken – cleans were far better than I imagined – this isn’t a one trick pony by any means. The EL34 tubes add a hint of British flavour to the overdrive, particularly on channel 2. If thick and filthy is what you’re going for, this is it!
There’s no power soak functionality but you can still play the amp at fairly low volumes. The controls aren’t “all or nothing” type controls. Although, there are lunchbox 5150’s available (more on those in a moment).
Overall, the 5150 Mk3 (50-watt version), offers more tonal options than you might expect, some great features, and a better price point than most of it’s rivals.
Wattage: 50 watts
The tone of this amp is fairly dark, if that’s not your thing, there is a 6L6 version that may provide the tone you’re looking for.
Want more volume? There are 100-watt versions available with either EL34, or 6L6 power tubes. But, comments I’ve found on forums suggest the clean channel is better on the 50-watt model. How true this is, I’m not sure.
If a combo is your thing, there are 1×12” and 2×12” 6L6 loaded combo versions with 50-watts of tube power.
Want lower volumes or just a smaller format head? There’s the 15 watt LBX head which features the blue (crunch) and red (burn) channels. And the LBXII which features the green (clean) and blue (crunch) channels – both of these are loaded with EL84 power tubes.
Then, there’s a bunch of speaker cabs to match. From compact 1×12” cabs to full-on 4×12” cabs.
2. Orange Dual Terror Lunchbox Guitar Head Amplifier
Orange are best known for their dirty tones. And this amp 2 flavours of dirty British overdrive goodness.
My review of the “Orange Dual Terror Head Amplifier” (pictured above):
The Orange Dual Terror head amplifier is based on the ever popular Tiny Terror – the lunchbox head that started it all.
So, if you’re familiar with the Tiny Terror, this amp gives you the same and a second channel. This “fat” channel is similar but as the name implies, offers fatter tone. Or as Orange say, “extra girth.”
This second channel offers a lot more flexibility – it’s a great option when you need a gain boost for leads, where you have an independant tone control. They are footswitchable, but the footswitch is sold separately.
I opted for the Orange branded footswitch because it’s built like a tank. Seriously heavy duty. Although, any single button footswitch with a ¼ inch jack will do the trick.
In terms of tone, the dual terror delivers the sort of British filth I’ve come to expect from Orange. Works great in a range of genres, not just metal.
This amp doesn’t have a clean channel and I had no expectations in terms of what sort of clean sound I could get at low gain. But, the Dual Terror is capable of some beautiful glass clean tones. And sounded great plugging my Keeley Hooke Reverb directly into the front of the amp.
EQ controls are limited to a single tone knob for each channel. But that’s understandable – they’re packing a lot of functionality into a very small space. And the simplicity of a single tone control can be a great thing.
An FX loop would have been nice to have. Whether that’s good or bad depends on your personal preferences.
The only issue I had with this is the handle. It’s not the most comfortable and it can’t be taken off without removing the enclosure. So stacking amps on top of it isn’t so easy.
And, for those of you who also need the ability to play at low volumes, you’ll be able to scale this 30 watt monster down to 15, or even 7 watts.
Regardless, this amp packs a hell of a punch and pumps out some great sounding dirty tones.
Wattage: 30 watts (can be switched to 15, or 7 watts).
The Dual Terror is part of Orange’s “Terror” line of compact head amplifiers. There are no combo versions here – just heads. All capable of bringing the filth.
This includes the Rocker 15 and Brent Hinds Terror amps. Similar amps in terms of dirty tones, but each have their unique flavour. Each have two channels. One dirty channel and a clean channel. What’s worth noting about the clean channel is that it’s a “pure” clean channel – no tone controls, just volume.
If you need an FX loop, these are the amps to look at. But they’re only 15 watts, compared to the 30 watts of the Dual Terror.
Then there are the high gain monsters, the Dark Terror and the Jim Root Signature. Both of these are the more gainy of the Terror line of amps.
Finally, we have the ridiculously small Micro Terror, and Micro Dark. These are hybrid amps with a solid state power section, and single tube for the pre-amp section.
I’ve had a Micro Dark in my collection for a while now. And while it lacks the headroom to compete against a drummer without going through a PA system, it packs a real punch for it’s size.
3. Victory VX The Kraken Lunchbox Guitar Head Amplifier
Victory Amplification is the brain-child of amp designer, Martin Kidd, who was originally with Cornford amps.
This seems to be one of their most popular amps for blisteringly high gain tones, and for good reason.
My review of the “Victory VX The Kraken” (pictured above):
Let’s start with the features.
This is a 2-channel amp with 2 different flavours of gain. You’ve got a bass, middle, treble, and 2 master volumes.
With the 2-button footswitch that comes included, you can set this up in one of two ways:
- Switch between gain 1/2, and master 1/2.
- Switch the master and gain simultaneously, and the second switch then turns the FX loop on/off.
So, while this amp has no clean channel, this functionality makes it more flexible.
If you want to stick to using gain 1, you can use the standard configuration and just switch master volumes to get a level boost. There’s also a “bass focus” switch on the back which can tighten up the low-end.
VX The Kraken is 50 watts, but for those that want the option to play at home, you have a low power mode which takes it down to 9 watts. There’s also a single-ended mode to drop that down to below 2 watts.
What about the tones? Each gain mode will give you a different flavour. Gain 1 is British inspired crunch (crunchy but with plenty of gain), and Gain 2 is American inspired high gain.
As well as the foot switch, the amp includes a padded carry bag.
Now, I’ve owned this amp for a good few years now and it continues to impress me. The lack of a clean channel does get in the way sometimes, but damn, the gain tones sound so good!
The only issue I had was stacking on top of other head amps. But that was solved with some extra long feet from Victory’s store. If you get the matching cab and sit this amp on top, you won’t run into this issue.
And like all other Victory Lunchbox head amplifiers, you can buy rack-ears for use with 19” rack systems.
Wattage: 50 watts
I have the EL34 version of this amp, but you can also get a 6L6 loaded version. There’s only a subtle tonal difference from what I’ve been told, but it’s nice to have the option.
There’s also a full-fat 100 watt “Super Kraken.”
It’s based on VX The Kraken, but it’s louder and has more features. Most importantly, you’ll have a clean channel and midi, amongst other things.
And Victory’s pre-amp pedal series means you can slam the Kraken’s brutal tones through any amp your heart desires.
4. PRS Archon 50 Guitar Amplifier
While PRS are usually associated with their meticulously crafted core line of guitars, they also offer a range of brutal, high gain guitar amplifiers.
Note: Since I purchased this amplifier, the MT15 Lunchbox head was released. It’s based on the Archon but tweaked to Mark Tremonti’s specifications. Given the affordability and functionality, I would recommend the MT15 over the Archon. Click here to check out the MT15.
My review of the “PRS Archon 50 Combo Amplifier” (pictured above):
At first glance, the Archon seems to be a regular 2 channel guitar amp. In terms of looks, it’s brutality is rather understated, at least for the combo version.
We’ve got a clean channel, and a lead channel. Each have volume (well, gain), treble, middle, bass, and a bright switch.
Then there’s a presence and a depth control – these are global so they control both channels. Then we’ve got a master volume for each channel.
On the back, we’ve got an FX loop send and return, half power switch, bias jacks, external speaker connection, and footswitch connection for the included footswitch (channel switching and loop on/off). And damn, the light on that footswitch bright!
It’s worth noting that the footswitch connection appears to be a MIDI cable, with what looks to be a 5 pin DIN connector, and the included footswitch is hardwired. And PRS recommend against using anything but the supplied footswitch in their user manual. Whether this could be an issue or not, is difficult to say – it appears a lot of players are using the RJM Amp Gizmo to control the Archon with other devices (e.g. Line 6 Helix).
And if TRS jack is more your speed, Best-Tronics make a switching cable for 5 pin DIN to TRS. But, I haven’t personally tried it.
What about under the hood? The Archon comes loaded with a 12” Celestion G12-75T speaker. In terms of tubes, it has 2 6L6 power tubes and 6 12AX7 preamp tubes.
So, what about the tone? My expectations of this amp were way off. Sure, it was the savage gain tones that first attracted me to it, but it turned out to be so much more.
Most high gain amps either don’t have a clean channel, or their clean channel doesn’t sound pleasing. The Archon is very different.
And because I was so focused on using this amp for metal, I didn’t understand how truly versatile it is until I’d spent a fair bit of time playing it. Even now, I’m still finding tones I never knew were possible. And dialing the lead channel volume down, I was able to get some nice breakup with my strat, and some lush cleans from the clean channel.
But, we are talking about amps in the context of metal, so how does it sound with my Bareknuckle loaded Ibanez? Freaking brutal, that’s how it sounds! The amount of gain this beast has on tap is insane, and that’s not surprising since it has 5 gain stages.
…. And it’s one of the best sounding overdrives I’ve heard in a long while.
So, if you want a high quality amp for modern metal tones, yet, with plenty of tonal versatility, be sure to check out the Archon.
In hindsight, the one issue I have with this amp is that despite being switchable down to 25 watts, it is still too loud for home use. The 25 watt version is switchable to 13 watts which would make it a far better choice. I’ve linked to the 25 watt version below.
Wattage: 50 watts, switchable down to 25 watts.
There is a 25 watt available which scales down to 13 watts, which would be better suited for home use.
What about the head versions of the Archon? There’s a 50 watt, and a full-fat 100 watt version available.
There’s also the MT15. It’s a lunchbox size head with 15 watts of power, but it’s a loud 15 watts. It’s based on the Archon and voiced specifically for Mark Tremonti of Alterbridge. So, if you’re looking for a more affordable option, this is well worth checking out.
5. Marshall DSL Series
Marshall have created some of the most sought after amps in history. And the “Dual Super Lead” is their flagship range of modern amplifiers.
The DSL range is the most affordable on this list, and offers the most options in terms of configuration and power. From 100-watts of sheer power in a head amplifier to a 1-watt practice combo.
My review of the “Marshall DSL40C Combo Amplifier” (pictured above):
The Marshall DSL40 is a 2 channel combo amplifier with a shared EQ, and onboard digital reverb.
We’ve got a classic gain channel up first. This has two modes – clean and crunch. The first will take you from clean to Plexi style tones, the other will give you JCM800 style crunch (not exactly those tones, of course).
Next up, we have the ultra gain channel that takes you from high gain to even higher gain. Both channels share an EQ, as well as presence and resonance controls. There’s also a tone shift button which will be of interest if you’re after more of a metal tone.
Then there’s a built-in digital reverb. You can set different amounts of reverb for each channel, and it sounds pretty darn good, but it’s fairly subtle.
On the back, we’ve got an FX loop send & return, half power mode, footswitch socket and external speaker connections. It’s worth noting that the half power switch does change the tone slightly.
A footswitch is included, but there aren’t any lights on it. This could be solved easily with an aftermarket footswitch.
When testing this amp, the thing that immediately jumped out at me was how bright it is. Particularly when using my Jackson with Seymour Duncan Super Distortion pickups.
I switched over to my Les Paul and this tamed some of the harshness, particularly on the crunch channel. I’d partly put this down to the fact my LP has pickups with alnico magnets – these are much softer sounding generally, than those with ceramic magnets.
The clean channel is silky smooth – sure, not a Fender, but I’ve always enjoyed the cleans on every Marshall I’ve owned. And the DSL is no exception.
The crunch channel has a decent amount of gain available. And it’s capable of some nice tones – a little harsh at times but that’ll help you cut through a mix.
The ultra gain channel provides plenty of gain, but it was a little fizzy for my taste. Although, this may have been addressed in the newer version of the amp – this one was bought in 2017. There are two modes, so you can push the gain even more, but you likely won’t need to.
Overall, there’s a lot to like about the DSL range. Sure, it’s not for everyone, given the brightness of the amp. But this will be perfect for some.
It’s cool that you can get Plexi and JCM800-esque tones, but if you want those precise tones, you’d be better off getting a purpose-built amp. But, if you want an amp that has a diverse tonal palette – the DSL is a decent option.
It’s also worth noting that the newer version of this amp (the 2018 model) has had a number of improvements. There are master volumes for each channel, MIDI, an emulated line out, etc. It’s also been re-voiced.
As usual, be sure to check out some demos or drop into your local store, to make sure it’s capable of creating the tone in your head.
Wattage: 40 watts
In the DSL range, there are a lot of different configurations available.
This includes a 1-watt combo and head, a 5-watt combo and head, 20-watt combo and head, as well as a monsterous 100-watt head. So, whether you need a small tube-driven practice amp that your neighbours will love, or a devastatingly loud amp for live use (or making your neighbours hate you), you’ll find it in the DSL range.
Wrapping it up (and a few frequently asked questions)
Are there other great tube amplifiers for playing metal out there? You bet! But out of the amps I’ve personally tried, these are some of my favourites.
Here are a few things to consider when choosing your next amp, especially if you don’t have the option to try before you buy:
- Head room – If you’re just playing in your bedroom, most amps will be overkill. The Orange Dual Terror has a “bedroom or headroom” mode so you can drop the wattage down significantly. In general, I always like to go for a higher wattage amp than I’ll need, so I’ve got more headroom for pedals.
- Wattage – This doesn’t tell you exactly how loud an amp will be. And the volume of a tube amp is far louder than a solid state amp of “equivalent” wattage.
- Head amps are more convenient – Combo amps are heavy. Well, so are head amps and speaker cabs, but you can always switch out your cab for a lightweight cab by Matrix Amplification. And if you plan to have multiple amps, it’s more straight forward to have a cab with several heads stacked on it, than a load of cabs. Head amps are more convenient if you may want to run a load box, so you can crank your amp without incinerating your ears (and everything around you).
- Do you need a clean channel? – It’s helpful to at least have the option of cleans, even if you don’t use them very often. This is why I’m tempted to upgrade to the Super Kraken, since the VX doesn’t have a clean channel. But, I have other amps for cleans, so it’s not a massive issue. But, if it’s going to be your only amp, it’s something to consider.
- Do you need an FX loop? – Some pedals will just sound better through an FX loop instead of straight into the front of the amp. Most of these amps have FX loops, but the Orange Dual Terror doesn’t, so it’s worth considering.
- What about YouTube demos? – These are always worth watching prior to buying gear but bare in mind that YouTube compresses the balls out of audio. And you need to listen on a decent pair of speakers. But always remember that with a high quality gear demo where the amp is mic’d up, the “in-the-room” sound will be different.
- Your speaker cabinet – Your speaker cab will have more impact on your tone than you might think. But, they can be tricky to store if you’re limited on space. Be sure to check out my article on space-saving speaker cabinets for some ideas.
And since we’re on the subject of metal, be sure to check out my articles on 6-string metal guitars, and extended range guitars.
Thanks for stopping by and good luck on your musical journey.